Followers

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“Hey God, look,” I said, pointing at my email. “We got another follower.” My coauthor feigned deafness and pointed east toward the rising sun.

“What?” I asked. “You want the blinds up?” She nodded. I complied and continued, my voice less certain. “You know we have people who read about our chats, right?” God looked at me. It wasn’t an encouraging look, but I didn’t let up. “We have over a hundred and…”

“So?” God interrupted, drilling directly into my own deeper questions. “And you know there are literally billions of blogs, right? If words were food, there’d be no hunger,” she said with a sigh that I interpreted as judgement.

“Yeah,” I snapped. “And if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”

Dust swirled in the aggressive light streaming into the room–glittering little particles of burned wood, dead skin, pulverized top soil. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Words to words. Ideas to ideas. I wanted to scream and rip my insides out. This can’t be it. This can’t be all.

“It’s not,” God said. “It’s not all. It never is. Get in the old white car and drive. Find a new horizon.”

I teared up. God had called my bluff. “I can’t,” I said, sorrowful. “I just can’t. This is my life. The only one I have. The only one I will ever have. I can’t risk knowing any more than I already know. I’ve arrived too late to save anyone.”

“Of course you have,” God said. “And besides, one of the engine mounts has deteriorate. It’s not entirely safe. But the tires are new. The bread is fresh. And the bodies are broken…” She choked up. “The bodies are so, so broken.”

I rushed over, sorry I’d refused her offer, sorry I knew so little, sorry I was so limited and afraid. The way forward was obscure, but I rallied. “Don’t feel bad, God,” I said, grabbing what I could of her in my arms. “I’ll give it a try. There’s a little over half a tank. Maybe we could see where that takes us, okay?”

God looked surprised and nodded. “Nothing is as it appears,” she said slowly, in her best teacher voice. She held my chin in her hand. “There will be wind this afternoon. You can hide from it, chase it, or get out that dusty kite and fly it.”

I remembered a day at the beach, long ago. My landlubber mother admired the fancy kites and bought some for the grandchildren, but she was too timid to try one herself. I wondered how things might be different had she’d tried.

My reverie was interrupted by fast-approaching thunder. The earth was throbbing, the pulse of God coming up through my bones. I looked up. Hundreds of thousands of beggars were galloping across the horizon, their horses majestic, their tattered clothing flying like flags. They waved and cheered, the sky jagged with silhouettes. They were like ET going home. A stampede of jubilation.

Even though it was very cold, the old white car started right up. God hopped in, rubbing her hands.

I turned and faced her. “Where you headed, stranger?” I asked, hiding my fear behind a pathetic John Wayne accent. God threw back her head and laughed like that was the funniest thing she’d ever heard. This helped. I put the car in gear.

“You should never pick up a hitchhiker,” God said, still chuckling.

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “Buckle up.”

Risk Assessment

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Sometimes, God makes it look like prayer actually works. Other times, the apparent anarchy of the universe leaks through every layer of my consciousness, and it seems more productive to praise the wind and sky, the stones and soil–more logical to buy a lottery ticket than meekly ask about the right way forward. But then, things happen. Like when God stopped by Sunday evening with eroded teeth and a need for housing.

“First things first,” God said. “I’m a felon.” His hands were shaking a little. “I’ll understand if it’s beyond you to give me shelter.” He went on to explain that a church on the edge of town was praying he’d find a place, so if this didn’t work, that was okay. The right place would appear.

I resented this. It felt like a conspiracy. Who was this, really? God? The Devil? A broken human, standing in? The prayers of the people pelted me like driving rain. I was soaked in a matter of minutes, chilled to the bone, indignant.

“So, ahhh.” I said, stalling. “References?” God provided phone numbers.

“Children?”

God ducked his head. There were tears. He said “Yes, long story. They won’t be living here with me. I’ve gotta stabilize. Find a place.”

A combination of cologne and cigarette smell oozed from his clothing.

“Do you smoke?” I asked, looking for an easy out.

“Yes, but only outside. One thing at a time, y’know?”

It’s a terrible thing when God drapes himself in the needs of the world and crowds in alongside a regular day. Maybe this is why I keep my days so full–brimming with quirks, needs, fears, and imagined emergencies. Maybe, too, this is why I keep myself surrounded with the square footage I call home.

But way deep inside, I suspect there’s no such thing. We make up the idea of home, but it’s fleeting, easily blown away in a driving wind, swept downstream in the flood, or swallowed when the earth convulses. God and I often sit by the fire in my cozy living room and contemplate such things. When she’s like that, I’m happy and warm. When he’s like this—dependent, defenseless–I recoil.

My son-in-law offers a kind word and at least a dollar to every shady-looking street person who approaches him. Even some who don’t. He shakes hands. I’ve watched this many times, mentally making excuses for myself and my judgments. He’s strong and quick. I’m old and vulnerable. I shrink back.

But this time, I rally. A part of me I often ignore knows this: We’re meant to body surf on waves of compassion, not hole up with our cronies or shout clever slogans from behind police barriers. We’ve got to risk being used, bruised, fooled, and foiled.

“Okay, God,” I said. “I’ll call some references.” He nodded and left without pleading. I like that in a needy person.

The references were glowing. A parole officer, respectfully noting how hard these guys try. How little they have to work with. A business person, willing to crawl out on a limb. And me. Gullible? Maybe. But hell. What’s there to lose?

I’ve rented the basement to God. We’ll see how that works out.

New Shoes

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This morning, on the Stillwater, smoke from both the fires of Canada and the fires of hell invade my body and soul with every shallow in-breath, and I endure the artist at work–yesterday’s ashes glazing the face of granite into something too terrible to touch, too beautiful to behold.

Not long ago, I began to pack for yet another autumn transition. I picked the last of the purslane-choked green beans, pulled the onions, undid the hoses, and with sickening ambivalence, bought poison to deal with mice. Traps or poison? I’m not a rodent, but I’d rather be poisoned than trapped. If we had a decent God, we wouldn’t have to use our crude, projected empathy to make these wrenching decisions. Maybe we’d even feed the mice and marvel at the prodigious quantities of seashell pink offspring. Or maybe in the spirit of the grand circle of life, we’d learn to eat said offspring. A delicacy. Except for their tiny spasmodic appendages, curled baby mice do bear a remarkable resemblance to shrimp. Wait. That wouldn’t solve the problem.

Eat or be eaten. Poison or be poisoned. By and large, the weeds won this year. And now, forests are being blazed out of existence, flood waters gorge on land, and lives are lost. I sit in unearned comfort, grimly examining the karmic consequences of nonaction, trying to goad my flesh into movement, my mind into comprehension. It feels useless. Why bother? Such is my mood today.

Yesterday was a different story. I had new running shoes, and there’d been rain. And God, I know you don’t like it when I imply you’ve engaged in miracles for my sake, but it seemed you’d reduced the gravity along the highway where my stride was effortless and I bounded along like a deer, legs spring-loaded, heart lifted and extraordinarily light.

“It was the shoes,” God says.

“I don’t believe you,” I say.

And God laughs. I can barely see the big, sharp teeth through the haze, but I can hear the riotous sound of a happy God.

“No, really,” I say in my loudest voice. “I don’t believe you.”

“I know,” God says. “Next time, run in old shoes with rocks in your pocket.”

“Fine,” I say. “That’s just what I’ll do.”

“And what will you prove, darling?” God asks, suddenly all innocent and interested.

“Nothing,” I shout. “I’ll prove nothing. There’s nothing mortals can prove. You shift the odds, change the playing field, turn down the volume, distort the light. We’re mice in an endless maze. Where are you, God? That’s what I want to know. Where are you?”

“Sheesh, oh ye of little vision. Calm down. You cannot look anywhere I’m not. I’m the maze and the fire, the weeds and the water, the new shoes and the rocks. And by the way, you got a good deal on those Sauconys, but I liked the yellow Asics pretty well too.”

 

Red Box

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God and I are meandering down the alley. I’m on foot. God’s doing a high-wire act to make me laugh. There are crows, evidence of squirrels, and things discarded littering our way. Among the riffraff I find the redeemable. I offer thanks for the empty gift box flashing fancy red from a garbage can, and driftwood, smooth as skin, and seven or eight green apples, all bruised from the fall. I commune with the broken, hoping to catch a direct glimpse of my constant, often invisible, sometimes putrid companion who hides among the worst of it. The ways of God aren’t always pretty, safe, or easy. But I’ve learned to never, ever sanitize God. It causes a crippling loss of the sensations that make us human.

Today, it appears God wants to be silly, but shoes hanging by their laces from electrical lines don’t do much for me. Everything seems stupid. “Hey Goofball,” I venture. “Could you stop clowning around? I don’t want to laugh right now.” Honesty usually works well with the Holy Goofball. She can make her hide thicker than a crocodile’s. But this time, her skin is thin and she’s reactive.

“What makes you think this is for you?” she asks, voice sharp and petulant. “It isn’t always about you.” I look around. Lilac bushes are wilting. Alley weeds transgress, ugly and aggressive. Dust and smoke swirl. And then I notice that a muttering woman with a Safeway shopping cart has turned toward us. Why’d she turn? It isn’t even a paved alley. But here she comes. Snarling. Incoherent. A small, vicious world pulled tight around her—she’s walled herself off from gentleness, reason, or even meaningful contact. She’s a one-winged bird, flapping low. The gravel impedes her progress, but even so, she’s steadily getting closer.

Unhinged people frighten me.

Of course, I know, you know, God is permanently, proudly, unhinged. An ever-present danger to my complacency. Ultimately, it’s always God pushing the shopping cart, arriving as requested. I often wonder why I ask. But this is irrelevant. The street lady comes for us all, requested or not.

She waits, scowling, while I meekly climb in. There’s room for my red box, the driftwood, and a few of the apples. I am adding to her burden, but I see no other option. This unflinching, castoff God shows me the way, holding a fractured mirror.

My real home is a borrowed wire cage, my shelter permeable, mostly imagined. I am wilting lilacs, aggressive weeds, swirling smoke and fine gray dust. I am the favored child of an unhinged God, waiting to see what will happen next.

Coping With the Bad Days

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As I pulled up on my bike to check on repairs underway on our van, God came out the back door in his underwear, bent over from the pain in his belly. He claimed it was the doughnut he’d eaten last night. He seemed confused–frightened about his prostate symptoms. “Got cancer down there. I think it’s spread to my nuts.” He motioned towards his testicles which I could have glimpsed if I tried, given the sparse and baggy nature of his attire. “This is my girlfriend’s house,” he explained. “I didn’t mean to stay here, but the police, and the people evaluating me…I’m not a hoarder. I’m autistic. I bought you some parts, but I can’t deal with it. Maybe next time.”

I could see the mottled top of his bald head where a nasty boil had crusted over. With one hand, he clawed at the air near me, seeking solace, coherence, connection. He wanted a kind of reassurance I could not possibly give. It’s the kind of reassurance I usually beg from him. And he’s stuck with the same dilemma. Such reassurances are hollow. Inane. In the short run, everything will not be okay.

I offered what I could. “God,” I said. “Some days will be better than this.”

He moaned and held his stomach. I gave him a teddy bear I’d found in a dumpster. It was clean and soft, tan, with a pink bow. He examined my gift. “This looks familiar,” he said. “I think I’ve met this bear somewhere before. Can’t recall for certain.” He held it against his pain.

Ordinarily, I might have been ashamed of a dumpster gift, but not with God. Our eyes met. Beyond his prostate and roiling intestines, far from his festering boils, half-truths, and tattered underwear, a firefly flitted across the back of our retinas and exposed the dark for what it is—nothingness waiting for light. A blanket. A good place to hide and lick your wounds. Easily done in.

“Sometimes, the dark should be left alone,” God said.

I knew this. I nodded and turned my bike toward home. God faded. I felt certain he was going to the river where there are always people who need to get across. It’s especially dangerous this time of year.

Slow Awakenings

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“You awake?” I ask God. We got home very late. Time zone hopping is hard for me. I assume God doesn’t love it either, but I want to talk through my disorientation. Maybe with a cup of strong coffee, I can rouse the sleeping giant.

Our travels took us to cities cluttered with Homo sapiens arrayed in colors and shapes one sees less frequently in Montana. Beautiful, disturbing fractals–repeating patterns of hope, defiance, and despair. God on stage. God embodied. God black. God white. God with a face no one could love. I was reminded that God is, by definition, homeless. Such exposures can be unsettling. My usual world is small. My town, smaller.

Here on the rising river, God groans and pulls the alfalfa field over his shoulders, a shimmering quilt, greening as I watch. A red-winged blackbird lands on the garden fence. Then a robin. The boulders of winter have been rolled away, leaving the tomb empty again. The eyes of God are bleary, the breath of God questionable. The garments of night are crumpled at the edge of the riverbed–riffraff to contain spring runoffs and preserve riparian areas essential to survival.

In the natural order of things named God, I catch my breath and await further instructions. God yawns and rolls over. The hills pillow his sleepy head, and he gives me a nonchalant wave before snuggling back in. Generally, I don’t like being ignored, but this morning, I can tolerate the slow awakenings. I am growing more patient as my years dwindle and my soul thins out. Reality has become more translucent. When I really concentrate, I catch glimpses of the beyond where my thin bones and thick arteries won’t matter anymore.

Closer in, everything seems to matter. There are hills to die on, but I don’t know which ones. This is why I wish God would wake up. The fight to survive winter is over, but the wrong-headed weeds of early spring romp through my dreams—nasty little gargoyles grinning and drinking while I stand in the rain, chilled and uncertain. Exactly which battles should I wage, God? And how will I know if I win?

God snorts in his sleep. Likely, he’s dreaming gargoyles too. In the underworld, they’re everywhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crumbs

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Lately,  my life has been disrupted by a lot of travel. I barely have time to clean things out and cram them full again. I over-pack. It’s good to have a lot of baggage–it gives me choices. I can distract myself, especially if the journey is troubling.

“Ha! You crack me up sometimes,” God says from the bottom of my backpack. “Baggage blinds you, and distraction is the main ingredient in denial. You know damn well these things aren’t good for you. What’s going on?”

“Ha yourself,” I say. “Like you don’t already know what’s going on. I’m tired. I have this little life to live, and no matter where I go, I find meaninglessness, finality, circularity, and suffering. Nothing is going right. Our window shades keep malfunctioning, the dirt in our garden has gotten contaminated, and the kitchen floor is littered with crumbs.”

“Funny you mention crumbs,” God says. “Not long ago, a wise woman taught me the importance of crumbs. If I remember right, she was a Gentile.”

“A what?” I say. God snaps her glorious fingers, and a hundred dogs appear–barking, jumping, fetching, tumbling–licking up those crumbs as if our floor was a five-star doggy restaurant. It’s a party. A festival of abundance. I lay down among the dogs, and they lick my cheeks, salty with self-pity. I think to myself, “In my next life, I want to be a dog.” I throw a heavy cloak of doubt over myself, and I wait.

God watches, arm’s crossed, enjoying the energy. She loves the dogs. The dogs love her. God reaches into the silverware drawer, finds more crumbs, and flings them in the air. The dogs leap up, eating them before they even reach the floor.

“Do you see, child?” God asks me. I don’t see. My ignorance is embarrassing. The doubt has crept up around my neck. It’s hard to breathe.

“Even the crumbs are sacred,” God explains in a patient voice. “And so is your doubt.”

Most of the dogs have romped away, but a golden lab lays down beside me, and we consider this mystery together. The dog pulls the cloak away, puts a paw on my belly and licks my neck. I’ve done nothing to warrant this comfort, this unconditional companionship. I don’t even deserve the crumbs, but I see now they are lovely.